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Prisoners, horses learn together

September 26, 2009 | 12:48 pm


When they arrive at the Wyoming Honor Farm minimum-security prison, they're afraid. They lack trust, and they usually either want to fight or escape -- or both.

The same could be said about some of the inmates.

"You can almost look at them as inmates," said John Dowell, 37, who is serving his sentence at the north Riverton institution.

For almost three years, Dowell has trained wild horses brought to the honor farm as part of the federal Bureau of Land Management's adoption program.

"Some come into the system and want to change their lives," he said of inmates within the Wyoming Department of Corrections.

Others, however, have no intention of altering their ways.

"There's so many similarities," he said of horses brought from the wild and inmates off the streets.

For Dowell and other inmates who participate under horse adoption program supervisor Jeff Martin, they learn not only to calm wild animals captured around the state, but they also gain insight about themselves.

"The biggest difference between the horses and the inmates is the horses didn't ask to be here," Dowell said. "We made some bad decisions, and we're here for a reason."

A recent event at the Honor Farm represented the culmination of the efforts by the program's participants during the twice-annual horse adoption, which this time offered 55 once-wild animals up for auction.

The horses come to the facility with tremendous fear of humans, but they learn to trust and accept handling by people after undergoing training by the inmates for about six to nine months.

Tied to pens and standing calmly for potential buyers to view, touch and even ride, the horses and two burros awaiting adoption have shed much of the wild behavior they displayed just months earlier.

"It's like changing God's creation," Dowell said.

But the same is true of the participants working in the program.

"It's more or less the horse training the man," Dowell said. "It really helps you develop patience. I've never had more patience in my life."

The inmates aren't the only ones who benefit. The Bureau of Land Management uses the program to help control Wyoming's wild-horse herds, while the public gets a good deal on an animal from the state.

"It provides trained wild horses to the public as a way and opportunity to move these horses," said Scott Fluer, specialist and auctioneer with the adoption program for the agency in Lander.

The Bureau of Land Management has utilized the program for more than 20 years in its efforts to limit Wyoming's wild-horse population to about 3,500 among the state's 16 herd management areas.

Every three years the agency conducts a roundup of horses in the wild for the program.

"That's our way of managing the population," Fluer said.

Roberta Jackson and Art Reynolds, both of Riverton, appreciate the opportunity. "These are just nice horses ... already gentled," said Jackson, who has purchased animals in the last several years through the program. "We go on wagon trains. These are good horses for that."

Reynolds does not want to think about having to train wild horses himself.

"If we had to start from scratch?" he said, quickly adding, "There's not that much cowboy left in me."

On the other hand, Dowell is using the program to bring out the cowboy in himself.

"It's pretty much a lifelong dream to ride. ... Just never had the opportunity," he said.

On weekdays he is training horses from 8 to 11:30 a.m. and 1 to 4:30 p.m. Pay ranges from $35 to $80 a month for participants in the program.

It's not about the pay for the participants like Dowell. It's about change.

"When I first came into the system I was lost. I was an emotional wreck," Dowell said, adding that he had cried often, sometimes with little reason. "I got here to the farm and I didn't know what to expect."

Like the horses he would soon train, Dowell learned to gain control of himself. "They took an emotional wreck like me and helped me become a man," he said. "This is the longest I've ever held a job in my life."

The discipline Dowell has within himself translates to his ability to train the wild horses.

"A man doesn't just get to walk into that round pen" with a wild horse, he said. "If you go in there and have always been a dishonest person, that horse will call you on it."

It seems that dealing with horses can be much like communicating with people. "You have to be friends with that horse. You have to earn that horse's trust," Dowell said. "Once you get that horse's trust, that horse will do anything for you."

-- Associated Press

Photo: Wyoming Honor Farm inmate John Dowell is seen at the farm in an August 28, 2009 photo. Credit: Associated Press.

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